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StAnza: In Conversation with Kevin McLean

Loud Poets: Slam Series 2024 is one of the many events on display at this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival, running from 8th to 15th March. Ahead of the festival, I spoke to Kevin McLean, the creative director of “I Am Loud Productions”. The production and entertainment company produces a range of poetry projects and highlights the interdisciplinary nature of spoken word poetry.


AM: “‘I Am Loud Productions’ started as a monthly poetry night, and I wanted to ask about the value of bringing people together for poetry, which is typically considered a solitary art and discipline. What is the inspiration behind the poetry nights that started this?”


KM: “We started our nights back in 2014, we just had our ten-year anniversary. And when we were kind of getting into the scene, there were a lot of literary focused nights and workshops, whereas we wanted a night that kind of felt vibrant, lively, similar to a lot of the comedy nights or music nights that we went to, but with poetry, and there was a real hunger for it. The one thing that’s never gone away is that people are hungry to share their poetry, not to print it on the page and send it off or to have people read it separately from the author; there’s something magical about being in a room, sharing your poetry, hearing that immediate feedback from the audience. Poetry at its core is trying to elicit emotion, you’re trying to make people feel something, and to be able to witness and see it in real time, to feel the vibe of a room change, and to see people laugh or to hear them cry because of what you’ve written is a very powerful, powerful thing.”


AM: “You had said that there was a sense of inspiration from comedy or from music nights, could you please elaborate on how similar the nature of poetry is to the nature of comedy, or music, or the performing arts?”


KM: “I mean, one of the reasons I love poetry so much, specifically spoken word poetry, is because it is so malleable. I think there’s this kind of undecidable quality to poetry. There’s lots of structures and forms you can point at, but I think it is a kind of beautifully undecidable kind of, odd art form. In spoken word especially, with poetry in a live format, you can lean into comedy techniques, we use music in poetry a lot, we create poetry films a lot, we use all these different art forms to enhance the poetry.”


AM: “Could you elaborate more on the structure and the form that’s involved in poetry and how that sort of plays into spoken word? Is structure heightened or reduced?”


KM: “I think that spoken word — there’s a decade long debate, the old argument between page and stage, which is better, and I think that wonderfully, a lot of that has dropped away. Written poetry has a denser vocabulary, it allows for more structures, because those things are more obviously seen on the page. Whereas with spoken word, it is mainly understood in the immediacy, in communicating a message or an emotion directly to the audience — you only have the time in which the poem is being performed to fully understand it. That’s where, I think, the real separation comes; I think certain types of humour, like sarcasm, are much easier to translate in a live sense than on the page, and so there’s this toolbox that exists for spoken word poets that doesn’t for page poets, and vice versa. But yeah, I think a lot of the arbitrary separations between those two things have dropped away.”


AM: “There’s certainly a relationship between poetry and performance in the spoken word, and I wanted to ask if poetry kind of takes Does poetry take on a new meaning when it’s performed? And in that performance, is there an aspect of, to phrase it provocatively, the inauthentic?


KM: “This is a fascinating question, and part of the team of “I Am Loud” is Dr Katie Ailes, who did her PhD in spoken word, she’s one of the very few spoken word academics in the UK, and the entire subject of her PhD is the idea of authenticity, and this perceived notion that audiences believe poets are telling the truth, and that is a unique aspect of spoken word. Whereas you wouldn’t always assume that an actor or a comedian, or even a musician, are telling the truth or talking about lived events. You wouldn’t necessarily think that someone writing a play about grief, where maybe, a mother dies, you wouldn’t necessarily expect that writer has gone through that exact type of grief. Whereas there is a perception, in spoken word, that you are speaking truth. I know from my own experience, I have a poem about my mother passing away, and people would come up to me after I performed that poem and just hug me. And imagine if I turned around and said ‘Oh no, my mother’s fine’ — that would be crazy, so the need for that truthfulness is important, and there’s a conversation around that. What I think is a separate conversation is the idea of performance, and I think there is a thin line between tapping into the genuine emotion of the poem you just read, and putting on a show. When we do performance workshops, I’m never teaching people to be an actor.”


AM: “I’m also aware that “I Am Loud” has moved into digital and audio production — to what extent is poetry an interdisciplinary art, and does it need to be one?”


KM: “If you’re a spoken word poet and your aim is not to publish, your aim is to perform live to audiences; there is no infrastructure for archiving that, that stuff becomes very ephemeral, it disappears, and so what we do is record the vast majority of our shows. For me, certainly, my goal is not to publish, I believe my work works better spoken, so I think I’m really writing for an audience. Through the interdisciplinary nature of adding music, of adding film, that is all in the effort to enhance the poem. Poetry works with so much; the core element is the poetry, and other art forms bend around it.”


AM: “You had said that your goal in poetry is not to publish, that your poetry works best when spoken, and you write for an audience; is there any pressure in writing for an audience, does that add or take anything away from your poetry?”


KM: “I don’t think it’s massively different from writing for publication. I think in any writing you should be considering who will read it — I know some people write for themselves, for cathartic expression, but at some stage you need to consider who you’re speaking to. We all create those works for others to see, to hear, to enjoy. When it comes to live performance, what’s scarier is you can see a reaction immediately, and so you write a joke and no one laughs — man, does that suck! When you write a joke in a page poem, you never see that person read it. But what it does come with is when they do laugh, and that immediate response to your piece is an incredible feeling. I come from a performance background, and so that conversation with an audience is essential to the work, and I find, more like a comedian, audiences help me edit my pieces. I’m not publishing, none of my poems are ever finished, they’re constantly evolving. And I respond to the reactions I get from audiences, when a line lands or it doesn’t, or something makes the flow better. I don’t employ an editor, I just get it for free from the audience. So it’s a different type of pressure that comes with a different type of reward, I think.”


AM: “And poetry from a different time or era, can that be applied to spoken word?”


KM: “It’s an interesting idea that spoken word is a new art form, where I would say that it’s traditional; what’s an older art form than speaking a story. With poetry, we made sound, rhythm, flow, rhyme and structure, and tried to put that on the page using all the tools that a poet would. But all those tools are meant to create a sound; we pinned them to a page, whereas poetry is supposed to be live, especially in Scotland. We have such a rich tradition of oral poetry. Every year I get invited to go and read Burns at events in January. No one goes to a Burns supper and sits quietly to read some of Burns’ work — they speak it, they perform it, dynamically usually. It is an event, and for me, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Styles change, but the core of it is still the same, and I think the beautiful thing about Scotland is the range of spoken word is so diverse. In Scotland, we have a really good contemporary history of delivering a range of styles within the spoken-word medium.”


AM: “Could you elaborate on the cultural history of spoken word in Scotland and how that is important for cultural identity?”


KM: “In Scottish history, we have Makars, and that is a very separate identity from a poet laureate; when you look at poet laureates, they’re linked to establishment, they represent the royal family and the government and all those things, whereas we have a Makar, a maker of things, of art, a voice for that scene, to push agendas and change conversations. Especially if you look at art around the independence referendum; the whole arts centre in Scotland is incredibly strong, and incredibly motivated to continue the link between artistic output and Scottish identity. I don’t know of many other countries where their own national day is in celebration of a poet, that’s a beautiful thing to have, to have that so closely linked to the identity of a nation. We are this tiny nation that’s well above its average in the arts scene; Scotland comes regularly in the top five of the world poetry slam championships.”


AM: “And as a last question, do you have a favourite poem or poet?”


KM: “On that, my favourite poet is a contemporary Scottish poet. Going back to the question of defining a poem, it’s saying a big thing in its simplest and most beautiful form, that’s what my attempt with poetry is. And I don’t think there’s any better example of that than a poem by Jim Monoghan, a Glasgow-based poet, called United Colours of Cumnock. It’s about his small town, it’s a minute and a half long, about the colours that represent the town, and in a minute and a half you learn everything you could about this tiny town in West Scotland, its history, its struggles and the people who lived there.”


Visit stanzapoetry.org to learn more about the StAnza Poetry Festival this year. Ticket discounts are available for Young Scot Card holders with the discount code YOUNGSCOT.


Images from I Am Loud Productions

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